Lochte makes case early with big win

The first time I heard Ryan Lochte tell his story, back in November in a pool in Atlanta for a race called Duel at the Pool, I thought this is going to kill as a neatly packaged up-from-the-roaches Olympic tale TV so loves to tell.

We all know the stories I am talking about, told in solemn tones: tales of disappointment, resolve and ultimately triumph. Lochte has all of this, of course — a guy who four years ago in Beijing decided that he may not be as talented or physically gifted as Michael Phelps, but he was going to dedicate the next four years to finding out whether working his ass off might take down the beast.

And Saturday, he finally beat Phelps in an Olympic race, winning gold in the 400-meter individual medley while Phelps finished fourth and failed to medal at all.

“I’ll tell you what. It’s weird. It’s weird not having Michael with me on the medal stand,” Lochte said. “I am really surprised he didn’t medal just because, whenever Michael swims, he is always on the medal stand no matter what.”

This is not necessarily a good thing that Phelps wasn’t. Depending on what happens, this may be the worst possible thing for swimming.

For all of us who love the sport — the beauty and speed and internal battle of wills — life in the time of Phelps has been fabulous. He helped swimming surpass the pixie parade that is gymnastics and the beasts of track — well at least all of them not named Usain Bolt — in terms of Olympic sex appeal and peacock eyeball interest.

In these London games, gymnastics falls a distant bronze behind swimming and track — mainly because of Bolt and Phelps and Lochte.

The question now is, if Saturday is indeed a harbinger of things to come for Phelps, can Lochte keep this going? Can he do more than dethrone Phelps? Can he replace him as the poster boy for swimming?

Sorry to be a buzz kill, but let’s be real. Failing to medal in what had been his signature event and failing to do so because he had nothing left for the final 100 is a really bad sign for Phelps as he starts his final Olympics. Also a not-very-good sign: Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman saying, “(Phelps) said it was horrible. It was. He accurately assessed it.”

Whatever denial people were in — even Phelps — this looks to be Lochte’s now, this business of being the best in the world and representing swimming and getting people to care.

I’d say Phelps is officially done except writing off a champion like Phelps — the Michael Jordan of his sport — should not be undertaken carelessly or quickly. Lochte probably best understands this.

“He is one of the hardest competitors I have known,” Lochte said. “I’ll tell you this: The next race he is going to light it up.”

Phelps still has three individual events — the 200 IM and 100 and 200 butterfly races. He also has as many as three relays, including the hotly contested 4×100 relay that goes down on Day 2 of the games.

“A lot of people say Michael is inhuman, but you know what, he is just like all of us,” Lochte said. “He just trains harder and he knows how to win, and that is what you have to learn and find ways to beat him. The best thing you can learn to do is learn how to race.”

There were hints of what Lochte could be. Almost all of his remarks could be taken one of two ways — real compliments about his friend or a little poke at his longtime foil.

Lochte certainly has swagger. He has personality, even if he is a little laid-back.

And if this indeed ends up marking the end of Phelps’ reign, this cannot simply be about Lochte ascending or — even worse — simply about Phelps descending. This is about what Lochte does while here. He needs to dominate these games, stay motivated and ride a wave into Rio de Janeiro, where he has said he plans to swim.

That’s because Saturday was a troublesome day at the pool for the Americans, save for Dana Vollmer’s Olympic record in a qualifying heat for the 100 fly and obviously Lochte. Relays were lost and bronzes accepted and the Chinese swimmers showed what four years of all that training and money have wrought — butt kickings.

Phelps’ disappointment was merely the most notable because he is Phelps.

“I mean, it’s just a crappy race,” Phelps said. “I couldn’t really go that last 100.”

During his post-race interview, it seemed to dawn on Phelps that maybe, just possibly, he had failed to properly prepare for his final Olympic foray. His two-year sabbatical from crazy-hard training has been well-documented and seemingly overcome, yet lingered as a culprit Saturday.

Phelps did not exactly say that. He just implied.

“Ultimately, it was a fitness issue over what he had done the past four years,” Bowman said, leaving no doubt.

This is what happens when an athlete gets . . . not lazy. Lazy is the wrong word. Lazy is a lazy word used by people who have no clue what it takes to swim at the kind of level Phelps has for almost 12 years. Lazy people do not win eight gold medals in a single Olympics or 14 gold medals in all. He has 16 medals total.

Nor was this a question of age. Phelps is 27. So is Lochte. So let us not pretend this is Dara Torres trying to keep up with Missy Franklin.

What happened to Phelps is more along the lines of what happened to Microsoft. You get good and feel unchallenged and ultimately lose direction. What was he going to be? The guy who won eight gold medals in Beijing? More?

Too late, he decided being the most decorated Olympian ever mattered, and now he remains two medals away from tying and three away from surpassing Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina.

He has six possible events remaining, and he is Phelps.

When Lochte talked of this being his year, though, it rang with truth. You know, the way you hear something and it just sounds right? And how everything else people say, no matter how convincing, does not. This is how I felt listening to Lochte.

“I’ve said this before: This is my year. I know it and I feel it,” Lochte said, “just because I put in hard work. I trained my butt off for four years. I feel it inside my gut that this is my year.”

This is almost assuredly his now. He beat the champ, and now he is the champ. And this is only a good day for swimming if he’s capable of handling all that entails.